Was there more of Ian Fleming in James Bond than he revealed?

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Ian Fleming: The Complete Man
Nicholas Shakespeare
Harvill Secker, $75

The words “Bond, James Bond” conjure an image, an institution, an industry unique in the annals of literature. Seven decades after Bond’s birth and almost six since the death of his creator, Nicholas Shakespeare has written a new biography of Ian Fleming. While not dissecting the 007 oeuvre, Shakespeare has, in no less than 864 pages, confirmed Fleming’s claim that his hero is drawn from “ninety per cent personal experience.”

An exceptional novelist and a prodigious researcher, Shakespeare has drawn on two earlier, eminently readable biographies – by John Pearson in 1966 and Andrew Lycett in 1995 – and with some new material, produced a compelling narrative that justifies his rather bold subtitle The Complete Man.

But like Shakespeare’s seminal life of that prodigious travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, he has tackled and unravelled an extraordinarily complex subject. Born in Mayfair in 1908, Ian Lancaster Fleming was the son of privilege but the grandson of a self-made man. Robert Fleming, Ian’s grandfather, a Dundee book-keeper, had virtually invented the investment fund. Ian’s father, Valentine Fleming MP, was killed in France when Ian was eight and his monstrous mother, Eve, took charge. “She was Goldfinger’s greed, Blofeld’s snobbery, Dr. No’s icy heart, Rosa Klebb’s sadism …” Shakespeare notes. “No one else in Ian’s life embodied so much of what Ian had James Bond fight against.”

Apart from his mother and growing up in the shadow of his heroic father, he struggled in the shade of his brilliant elder brother, Peter. Only in his 40s would Ian eclipse him. So family was a torment and a spur.
At school, Ian was twice named victor ludorum but despite Eve’s connections, he left Eton and the military academy Sandhurst to avoid disgrace and failed the foreign office exam. Yet all was not lost – he could seduce in four languages.

It was not until WWII that he found his métier as personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, director of naval intelligence (and the inspiration for M in the Bond novels). Although soon promoted to Commander, it was thought he never saw action (“in-tray, out-tray, and ashtray”) and dubbed “The chocolate sailor”.

Fleming with Sean Connery on the set of Dr No.Credit: Studios.Copyright Notice – © 1962 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation.

Much of Fleming’s war work was top-secret, and the evidence has either been destroyed or is still classified, but Shakespeare has established that Fleming played a key role and this fed much of his fiction. Godfrey wrote after Fleming’s death, “the country and the Allies owe him one of those great debts that can never be repaid”. He was never short of girlfriends, but increasingly fell for Ann Charteris, an imperiously attractive aristocrat as brittle and difficult as his mother. They met in 1934, two years after she had married Lord Shane O’Neill. Before the war, she began an affair with the newspaper heir Esmond Harmsworth and, by 1940, with Fleming. The three men played bridge and golf together.

In 1944, O’Neill was killed in action in Italy. Fleming would not commit, so Ann wed Harmsworth, by then Viscount Rothermere, and a sustained career as one of London’s grand post-war hostesses began. Fleming’s sadomasochistic affair with Ann continued unabated. At The Sunday Times, where he was foreign manager, they called him “Lady Rothermere’s Fan”.

In 1942 he had fallen for Jamaica and built a spartan house called Goldeneye. It was here, “on or about 17 February 1952”, suggests Shakespeare, that Fleming sat down to write his first Bond. By then, Ann had divorced Rothermere and was pregnant with Fleming’s son, Caspar. He needed a bestseller to support his expensive bride.

“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning” was his opening line in Casino Royale, the novel that introduced a world-weary James Bond, at the gaming tables of Royale-les-Eaux, to a weary world still emerging from rationing and the reality that Britain was no longer great. As Shakespeare notes, Fleming’s Bond was so shorn of personal details, he became an aspirational Everyman. Readers saw themselves “in Bond’s shoes, in his car, in his bed, navigating life’s challenges with the aplomb of one of the elite.”

But today, two generations on, Bond’s louche, luxe world of high living, epicurean tastes and penchant for brand names is not so exhilarating. And Fleming’s portrayal of women is plainly indefensible. They are either secretaries – like Miss Moneypenny, Loelia Ponsonby and Mary Goodnight – adoringly taking dictation, hanging on the Commander’s every word or “the Bond Girl”, adolescent fantasy figures, like Pussy Galore, Honeychile Rider, Dominetta Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, and Solitaire.

Both character and creator are and were seriously flawed. Interestingly, the 41 novels, authorised in his wake by the Fleming Estate, and the phenomenal Broccoli/Saltzman film franchise have increasingly softened the sexism, sadism and snobbery so redolent of Fleming’s original canon.

He never enjoyed his fame. Those 70 custom-made cigarettes a day and oceans of alcohol meant that by the early ′60s he had “run out of puff and zest”. He died on August 12, 1964, aged 56. A Shakespearean tragedy.

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